Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Volunteers Keep Us Going

Somewhere just before Mile 25 of last year's Manchester City Marathon, I encountered the course's final water stop.

I'm sure I needed water. I'm sure it felt good to stop to take a drink. But I don't even remember taking a sip.

Rather, what I remember about the last water stop of the race was the warm smile and friendly face of one of the volunteers.

He was an older gentleman, who eagerly engaged me and my running partner in casual conversation.

It was more like we'd met up with an old friend at the supermarket than a stranger along a marathon course.

He joked with us and asked us questions. He paid us compliments that I'm sure we didn't deserve at that point.

He had us laughing at Mile 25. If that's not impressive, I don't know what is.

I felt as if I was the only person he was looking to help. What's remarkable about this, of course, is that he'd been doing this for hours - literally. He'd been standing at this water stop, set up behind stadium, handing out tiny cups of water as hundreds of runners passed by.

I have no doubt that he was as cheery and upbeat with everyone as he was with me.

Race volunteers are one of my favorite parts of any race. From a practical side, races couldn't go on without them. The Manchester Marathon alone, which will have its fourth running next Sunday, requires about 500 volunteers with duties ranging from handing out water, to providing bicycle support to helping with traffic flow and working the pre-race activities such as registration pick-up.

Some of the larger running events need up to 3,000 volunteers, some of whom are dedicated solely to cheering and crowd support.

Sound strange? I don't think so. There are points along a course that a simple word of encouragement or a handmade sign help keep me going more than any cup of water could.

I distinctly remember a woman - a stranger - standing at the corner of River Road and Union Street near the start of last year's marathon, quietly encouraging me and calling me by name. (I had my name written on my shirt.) It brought an instant smile to my face.

Scenarios like this played out over and over during the run. Each volunteer adds a little something special to race day memories.

Pick-me-ups come in all varieties, like signs people make and the kids who hold their hands out to give high-fives. Personally, I appreciate the lone volunteer who stands on a secluded part of the course clapping for hours.

A team of St. Anselm students mans the water stop just before Mile 20 of the Manchester Marathon course. I remember their enthusiasm and their laughs. They played music loudly out of a parked car, prompting runners to stop for an impromptu dance to Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

Volunteers and spectators are a special bunch. After all, we (the runners) are working toward that medal at the finish line or a new personal best time.

What do race volunteers get? They get to help runners take off their shoes, they get to hold us up when we're feeling weak, they get to hand us bottles of water and bananas to eat. They wrap us in thin foil blankets. They get to take care of us.

But Dot Callaghan of Rochester says they get more than that. She's been volunteering at the finish line of the Boston Marathon for 15 years. She helps families track their runners, answers questions - and yes, helps runners take off their shoes at the end of 26.2 miles.

She helps them find their hotels, look-up their official finishing times and track down any clothes they may have left on the shuttle bus. During the race, she serves as an information source for family members tracking their loved ones.

The day, says Dot, is both exhilarating and exhausting. It's the energy of race day that keeps bringing her back, she says.

If you've ever stood along the sidelines of a race or watched runners cross the finish line, you may know what she means. It's hard to leave a race without feeling inspired and impressed.

To volunteer for next week's Manchester City Marathon, email or sign up at the event website,

If your want to do something a little less formal or just want to get a taste of what a race day is like, come by and cheer the runners on.

They'll be happy you did. And I suspect you will be, too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Because I Can

I've gotten used to seeing my mom not be able to do things.

I don't mean things like mountain climbing or marathon running; I'm talking about the kind of tasks that most of us don't even think about - putting your shoes on, getting dishes out of the cabinet, brushing the back of your hair, opening jars, getting up from a chair.

The list goes on and on.

Despite her obvious physical challenges forced upon her by a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, my mom fights fiercely to remain as independent as possible.

She drives, she works, she folds laundry. She's come up with her way of completing simple tasks, like the way she precariously balances her coffee mug at counter-level while she ever-so-carefully tips the coffee pot to slowly pour her morning cup.

Believe it or not, she's become almost an expert on carrying and opening things with her mouth. We joke about how her jaws are definitely healthy and strong.

As a family, we've been accustomed to helping her. With the kids grown, most of care-taking has naturally fallen to my dad. He cooks dinners, does the grocery shopping, cleans the house. He's taken on more than most dads I know.

I think that's why I think it was particularly startling when my dad fell into a different role this week.

My dad had a hip replacement on Thursday. Even saying those words seems strange. My dad is the strong one, the healthy one. He's the one that's belonged to a gym - and gone religiously - since I can remember. He's the one who woke up in the early morning hours to fit a workout in or took the family dog on four-mile walks.

He's certainly not the one who needs surgery and doctor visits and medication.

Apparently, the doctors didn't agree. What started as a mention of a bit of hip pain a few months ago and the slightest of limps quickly progressed to a scheduled surgery date.

On Thursday, we added another artificial joint to our family. It makes five - my mom's two knees and two hips and, now, my dad's left hip. We're on our way to becoming a bionic family or breaking some sort of record, I'm sure.

I waited for my mom and brother in the lobby of the hospital, knowing they were only a few minutes away. We loaded my mom into a wheelchair borrowed from the hospital, met up with my sister and made our way to my dad's room on the fourth floor.

It was a scene that's become pretty familiar to us. My family members - all of us - huddled at the foot of a hospital bed, usually needing to pull in some extra chairs into the tiny visiting space. We crack jokes and laugh. We don't talk much about the surgery, pain or anything like might set off the easy fainting triggers of both my sister and brother.

But this time it was notably different.

It wasn't my mom in the bed. It was my dad.

We're not used to helping my dad. And he's not used to getting help.

When he ordered soup for dinner after surgery, there was some hesitation when it came time to actually get the soup into his mouth. With tubes coming out of his hands and his movement impeded by the post-surgery pain, he couldn't easily lift the spoon from the bowl to his mouth.

I held up the spoon and asked him if he wanted me to feed him. Actually, I purposefully didn't use those words. I asked him he wanted help. Asking to feed him made him seem too helpless.

I think we did three awkward spoonfuls before he asked me - perhaps told me? - to hand him the bowl. With a few laughable comments, he grabbed on with both hands and drank from it.

Although he was in relatively good spirits, seeing my dad in a somewhat pained and helpless state was just plain weird. He was pale, he was overwhelmingly tired. It wasn't him. I left the hospital that night with a strangely heavy heart.

It wasn't the kind of feeling that meant impending doom or something particularly sad. It was more like the feeling that I'd just realized something life-changing: My parents weren't young anymore.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, given the aforementioned five artificial joints and routine hospital family gatherings. But before now, those had always been attributable to arthritis - and the fact that, only 30 years old when she had her first attack, my mom had been stricken much, much too young.

I was completely relieved when, bright and early the next day, my text message alert rang out with a message from my dad from his hospital bed. I'm feeling much better today. Love Oxycontin!

He was cracking jokes and obviously feeling much better than that weak man I'd seen the day before. That stranger I'd seen the day before.

My dad's recovery, only 24 hours in by the next time I saw him, was amazing. He showed off his walking skills with a loop around the nurses' station. Together we walked - my dad with his walker, me pushing my mom in her wheelchair.

I joked that I hoped that this scenario - with wheelchairs and walkers - was not a glimpse into the future for me. I was only half joking.

The next day, with my dad's continued improvement, the docs gave him the okay to go home. So without even a minute in a rehab facility, he happily packed up.

We'd discussed logistics for getting him home the night before. Mindful that my mom wanted to help, I gingerly suggested that she stay at home and get things ready there while I picked him up. After all, it wasn't really practical for someone who needed help to pick up someone who needed help. Simple things - like carrying his bag - would be impossible. Luckily, she agreed.

The nurse wheeled my dad down to my car and stood by (so she could "see if he remembered what I taught him") while he slowly eased himself into my passenger seat. I've watched my mom struggle into a car countless times and, again, it was odd to see my dad suddenly having the same difficulties.

Once in, we headed home - with a brief stop to drop off some prescriptions at the pharmacy. He was obviously not feeling well. He often closed his eyes, conversed with one-word answers and, generally, was not himself.

Eventually, we pulled up to their building. We unloaded the walker and reversed the process he used to get into the car. He walked - impressively for someone less than 48 hours out of hip replacement surgery, I might add - to their new apartment. And went directly to bed.

He asked for extra blankets and something to drink. He napped on and off, occasionally joining the conversation with me and my mom from the other room.

I spent the next 24 hours in a new role - my parents' caretaker. I made dinner. I picked up prescriptions. I did laundry and dishes. I served them drinks and snacks. I helped them out in and out of chairs. I washed their hair. I fetched countless items for them.

I placed my mom's wheelchair next to her electric lift chair - which my dad is using temporarily - so they could share the sliding tray table for their dinner.

It may not sound like an ideal weekend - and I wouldn't exactly say that it was - but it gave me a real sense of appreciation.

I appreciate the closeness of our family and our willingness to come together and help out when needed. I appreciate what caregivers go through every day - my dad, in his care for my mom, included. I have a greater appreciation how difficult things can be for my mom.

And somewhat selfishly, I appreciate all of those little things I can do.

I don't take for granted that I can hop out of bed without pain, that I have the ability to decide between the elevator and the stairs, that I can quickly run into the grocery store for a few items or that I don't have to worry about whether a place is fully handicapped-accessible.

If I'm thirsty, I simply go to the fridge and get a drink. It doesn't matter if my shoes don't have velcro straps. I don't need any specially created aides - giant shoe horns, leg straps, grippers - to help with simple tasks.

This weekend has shown me that my active lifestyle, even with all the craziness that goes with it, is that more important to me.

After both of my "shifts" on parent duty this weekend, I went out for a run. Admittedly, running wasn't near the top of my to-do list. I was exhausted after making sure all of the details were taken care of for my parents.

But lacing up my shoes and hitting the pavement was one of the best things I could have done for myself this weekend.

I used the time to think about how lucky I am to have my health and fitness. I took in all of the sights and sounds of a near-perfect fall day. At times, I wondered what it would like if I couldn't run. I hope that day never comes.

I've often said I run simply because I can. This weekend certainly reminded me to take advantage of every moment that I can. After all, you never know when it won't be there anymore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Training For Training

I did it. I submitted my application to Team in Training's Boston Marathon program.

My first thought: Holy crap. What if I get in?

As I wait to hear whether I've been accepted into the program - yes, there's actually a line of people waiting to be "chosen" to run 26.2 miles and raise $3,200, imagine that! - my emotions range from excitement to plain ol' fear.

On the one hand, I'm excited to take on another fundraising and marathon training challenge. Plus, c'mon, it's the Boston Marathon. Or maybe I should say, it's The Boston Marathon. With a capital T.

Does it get better than that for a runner?

Although training doesn't start until December, I'm already in "marathon mode" - not in a sense that I'm logging tons of miles, but I'm just mentally getting ready.

Last week, I even solicited the help and advice of Manchester's TNT coach, Lauren. I plan to train with the TNT Boston team periodically (yes, I'm already talking like I've gotten in. Dangerous!), but since the runs are about an hour away, it's unlikely I'll make all of them.

Plus, I know Lauren can really help me improve.

I've watched her coach our recent TNT team. I was honestly blown away. I was over-the-top impressed with her dedication and, more than anything, knowledge. She took the time to get to know every runner - their habits, their goals, their abilities.

She suggested custom training plans and included speed workouts and strength training. She monitored their tweaks and twinges throughout training, guiding them when it was time to back off a bit and pushing them when she knew they could handle a bit more.

The result, not surprisingly, was one of the best-trained TNT teams I've ever seen. (They also totally rocked the fundraising, too, bringing in more than $30,000 for their relatively tiny 10-person team.)

I can only hope for the same success. (That is, if I'm accepted.)

As I told Lauren, I've already done 26.2, so it's not just about finishing. I know I can do that. I just want to do it better this time.

By "better" I don't necessarily mean a time goal - although I have some internal numbers rattling around in my head. I just want to be confident in my running and feel strong. I want to be healthy and smart about it.

Lauren, it seemed, was eager to jump on board, replying to my email with some suggestions to get ready for training.

That's right, I now have training for training.

Her main suggestion was to build up my base mileage. For now, she suggested running three to four times a week at three to four miles at a time during the week. My long run will work its way up to 10 miles, with a short recovery run the following day.

Quick math: I'll be logging roughly 20-25ish miles. Then, I'll increase my mid-week runs to six to seven miles per week, plus the long run. Up to 30ish miles per week. Oh, I also need to add in a couple days of strength training.

Yes, folks, that's the plan to get ready for training.

That must be the fear part kicking in now.

It's not that the miles are overly daunting - I've certainly logged that kind of mileage before, especially in the early months of the year before my bike miles make up the lion's share of my miles.

What concerns me just a bit is that I don't know what to expect once training actually starts. Just how much am I actually going to be running? And just how cold and dark and snowy will it be?

Plenty of unknowns. Have I mentioned I'm not a huge fan of unknowns?

What I do know, however, is that I trust Lauren, her advice and her knowledge. I know she won't steer me wrong - and, in fact, probably wants me to succeed and improve just as much as I do.

I guess now I just have to wait to be accepted. In the meantime, I'll start building that mileage up. Can't hurt either way.